Crystal Lake South’s Alexis Pupillo always pictured herself playing softball at a Big Ten school, but a trip to the University of Northern Iowa helped change her mind.
The catcher recently announced her commitment to the NCAA Division I Panthers after a visit to the Cedar Falls, Iowa, school. Pupillo also had interest from Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indianapolis and Evansville but felt most comfortable with the Missouri Valley Conference school located about 250 miles from Crystal Lake.
“Once I got on campus, I realized I didn’t need to go to a school with 50,000 kids,” Pupillo said. “I would just get lost in the numbers, and I would probably feel out of place. I wouldn’t have that deep connection with my professors. I wouldn’t know everybody in my major.”
Pupillo, who will be a senior in the fall, was a Northwest Herald All-Area first-team pick in the spring. The slugger tied Huntley’s Briana Bower for the area lead with 13 home runs, in only 21 games, and led South in most offensive categories, including batting average (.594), on-base percentage (.687), slugging percentage (1.422), doubles (10), triples (2), RBIs (37) and runs scored (46).
The Gators won a Class 3A regional championship for the second season in a row with Pupillo at catcher. She started for South as a freshman in 2019 but missed her sophomore year when the 2020 season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pupillo first learned of Northern Iowa’s interest this summer while playing in tournaments with her travel team, the Wasco Diamonds. Northern Iowa coaches saw Pupillo in Orland Park, Indiana and Kansas City. The sides exchanged emails and talked on the phone before setting up an official visit.
“They were really easy to talk to, and I felt super comfortable with all of them,” Pupillo said. “Normally, when you go and talk to a college coach, you’re afraid to say the wrong thing. But I was very comfortable. They understood what I needed from them, and I understood what they needed from me. It was a perfect fit.”
Pupillo also got to spend some time with Panthers players, which helped make her decision much easier.
“They were kind of leading me around campus and sharing their experiences,” Pupillo said. “Whatever questions I asked them, they didn’t dance around the question. They answered me directly. We went out to dinner and we had a lot of things in common. [UNI] has phenomenal facilities. It was just beautiful, and they have great competition in the Missouri Valley.”
Northern Iowa went 32-20 last season and finished second in the MVC with a 20-7 record. The Panthers earned their first NCAA tournament at-large bid in program history and finished with 30 or more wins for the sixth time under head coach Ryan Jacobs.
“I’m going to be playing with some of the best players and people in the country, and we’re all going to push each other,” Pupillo said. “I texted the girls after my visit and told them, ‘Thank you for everything.’ One of the girls messaged me back and said that she’s excited because now we both have someone to really push each other in the weight room.”
Pupillo worked hard and stayed busy during the pandemic.
“It definitely pushed me because I had to stay on top of my game, even though I couldn’t really go anywhere but my house,” Pupillo said. “I still had to hit every day and throw every day. But once you commit, that’s when the actual work starts. I will have to focus and hit it hard. I don’t want to come into college and be behind.”
Pupillo will study criminology, psychology and sociology at Northern Iowa and wants to become a district attorney.
“I’ve known since I was 10 years old that I wanted to play college softball,” Pupillo said. “It means a lot to me because all of my hard work is paying off. Now I’m going to be able to relax and enjoy my senior year, not be so stressed. I was worried I wasn’t going to find my college fit, but I had so much fun on my visit.”